Tag Archives: Harper’s Magazine

The Debate on the State of Contemporary Poetry

I’m not at all getting into the muck of this back-and-forth that has occurred as of late, but I am calling attention to it. Two totally different intentions.

June 20th, Ron Charles wrote a piece in The Washington Post titled “Why is modern poetry so bad?” His piece is in reaction to the original discussion that was instigated in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine titled, “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse.” by Mark Edmundson. Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia utters words like “small, in retreat, painfully self-questioning, oblique” to describe contemporary poetry today. Then he does the unthinkable. He names names. Brave? yes. Accurate? Well that’s up for debate. And causing quite the ruckus.

My favorite line in the entire piece is when he states, “One can’t generalize about it all.” Pot meet kettle. Edmundson does indeed proceed to generalize across the span of poets he lists, leaving a splattered mess of poets in his wake who are apparently up to no good at all with their work. The take away he leaves us with: the poems of greats like Hass, Bidart, Pinsky, and Olds are good but not “good enough.”

What is good enough? Who defines “good” in regards to contemporary poetry? And better yet, if readership of contemporary poetry is continuing to dwindle then dare I ask, does it even matter? A companion asked me the other day: isn’t poetry a dying art? (I have chosen not to name said companion for obvious reasons).

The only good part to this debate is that it might force those of us still writing in a contemporary poetic landscape to stretch our intentions, to consider the readership, to possibly recognize when we are and when we are not playing it too safe. A little challenge never hurt anyone, right? On the other hand, a complete degradation of those essential to the literary canon is somewhat hard to swallow.

I wasn’t the only one having a reaction to the discussion. Seth Abramson posted “Why Is Contemporary American Poetry So Good?” on the Huffington Post. Abramson calls attention to the fact that poetry is in fact in its heyday with more poetry being published, read and written than ever before. He makes a rebuttal to Edmunson’s pieces that is impressive in its scope and ability to showcase how far poetry has come. More specifically, how much more “mainstream” it has become.

The debate is rich and necessary. It reminds those of us in the thick of writing poetry to push ourselves beyond our predetermined limits and to continue reading and continue to fight for the essence of American poetry: “American poetry nourishes and enlivens and congregates and educates and in some cases even saves us the very same way poetry has always done for those with the willingness to stop speaking and listen.” Touche Abramson!

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Jeffrey Levine

poetry, publishing, and mentoring

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